Indoor and outdoor wayfinding technology for visually impaired people

Navigating through urban spaces: indoor & outdoor signpost technology for the visually impaired

A 3D tactile map of the Portland State University campus located in the PSU fraternity lobby. Credit: Lacey Friedly

Navigating an unfamiliar place is a particular challenge for people with disabilities. People with blindness, deafblindness, visual impairment or visual impairment as well as wheelchair users can move around more independently in urban areas with the help of effective control technology. A new report from the National Institute for Transportation and Communities (NITC) examines how low-cost methods can be used to make it easier for people to move through public urban spaces, both indoors and outdoors.


The study, led by Portland State University’s Martin Swobodzinski and Amy Parker, used focus groups, two case studies and a personal structured orientation experience on PSU campus to find the most helpful ways to get around. Tactile maps proved to be a very useful resource, while an accessible mobile app also shows promise as a guide and mobility aid.

The researcher will share more details on this project in a free webinar on December 15: Individual Wayfinding in the Context of Visual Impairment, Blindness and Deaf-Blindness.

Why is this research important?

Environments and signposts that support safe and confident mobility have been linked to improved employment outcomes, better access to higher education and a better quality of life. The results of this study improve our understanding of how people with visual impairments and blindness find their way through the world. Researchers hope the study’s findings will support the development of standards and innovations in mobile wayfinding as they relate to the integration of indoor and outdoor signposting and routing for visually impaired, blind and deafblind pedestrians.

Despite the proliferation of wayfinding apps designed to benefit travelers, the effectiveness of such tools remains limited. This study gave expression to the experiences of various travelers using wayfinding technologies to accomplish important life tasks. In addition to the results discussed in more detail below, by analyzing the remaining data, the researchers hope to gain a better understanding of the information needs of visually impaired, blind and deaf-blind pedestrians.

research methods

The project sought answers to three questions:

  • What preference structures, information needs and expectations do people with visual impairments, blindness and deafblindness have in terms of orientation in public indoor/outdoor spaces?
  • How can low-cost wayfinding technologies (eg, digital maps, geospatial data, personal telecommunications devices, and low-power beacons) be best leveraged to enable seamless wayfinding for pedestrians with functional disabilities in urban indoor and outdoor public spaces?
  • Which wayfinding technologies, data products and technology platforms enable sustainable, scalable deployment in a large academic institution?

College campuses are notoriously complex to navigate, especially for travelers with visual impairments. One of the major barriers for culturally and linguistically diverse people in accessing higher education is seeing themselves as full members of a college campus community. As a public university in the heart of downtown Portland, the PSU campus was an ideal location for this experiment because it offers realistic orientation scenarios and mobility challenges in a public urban setting. Additionally, PSU’s commitment to community service, equity and inclusion aligns with the project’s goals of promoting participation and access to the community.

Researchers began by reviewing the existing literature on the topic: “Wayfinding tools for people with visual impairments in real-world settings: A literature review of recent studies”.

Two case studies

The team conducted an initial pilot case study with a single participant, an adult who is deaf-blind. The full results of this case study were published in boundaries in education: “Seamless wayfinding by a deafblind adult on an urban college campus: A case study of wayfinding performance, information preferences, and technology needs.” The participant completed three routes on the PSU campus using either a mobile app, written directions, or a tactile map. For this participant, the mobile app had the lowest confidence and wayfinding performance, while the tactile map provided the highest wayfinding performance, confidence and satisfaction, and the fastest completion time.

A second case study involved a traveler with combined vision and hearing loss who also had work experience as an O&M specialist serving people with visual impairments across multiple states. This participant’s professional and personal experiences were helpful for the research team to further refine their testing protocol. The initial aim of the project was to compare three methods of providing guidance: tactile maps, verbal directions and “GoodMaps”, an accessible navigation app for iPhone and Android. Consistent with this participant’s findings, the researchers eliminated verbal instructions from the next phase of the experiment.

orientation experiment

In a larger experiment, participants were invited to take part in a series of wayfinding tasks and navigate three short routes around campus using indoor and outdoor elements. Accompanied by an experimenter with professional experience in orientation and mobility, participants were asked to drive two different routes using one of two possible orientation aids: a tactile map for one route and the GoodMaps mobile app for the other.

A total of 28 people took part in the main survey phase of the study and completed the experiment: 21 adolescents (between 14 and 18 years of age) and seven adults. Participants included people of color, LGBTQIA+ people and people with various visual impairments. The immediate next step for the research team is to consolidate the data at an individual level for each of the 28 participants and to code and score their observed wayfinding behavior and performance. While data analysis is still ongoing for the 28 participants, initial findings from the two case studies indicate that the tactile map provided the most effective wayfinding assistance.

focus groups

The research team conducted two focus groups, one with eight blind or visually impaired adults who had no hearing loss and another with nine deaf-blind participants using tactile American Sign Language or up-close visual American Sign Language. Common themes for the two focus groups included both the hope and promise of wayfinding apps to provide greater environmental literacy when traveling in the real world, as well as the limitations of using such apps.

Both groups expressed the need to develop apps in collaboration with travelers with visual impairments, given the unique limitations of apps in dynamic travel conditions. A specific issue that emerged with visually impaired travelers was that they must use multiple apps to complete a single route, as each app is useful for a subset of wayfinding tasks.

A further description of the results from the focus group with deaf-blind participants is available in Open Access boundaries in education Article: “The use of wayfinding apps by deafblind travelers in an urban setting: insights from focus groups.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

This study is the result of several innovative partnerships. The project’s lead researcher, Martin Swobodzinski, is an associate professor of geography at PSU, specializing in human wayfinding, spatial knowledge acquisition, accessibility and human-computer interaction. In 2017, he and Amy Parker of PSU’s Special Education Department began this work by collaborating on a NITC Small Starts project: Electronic Wayfinding for Visually Impaired Travelers: Limitations and Opportunities. The current project builds on this research.

Parker is the PSU Orientation and Mobility Program Coordinator, a program to prepare Orientation and Mobility (O&M) specialists that started in 2017. The program has spearheaded several initiatives, including interactive O&M workshops in partnership with TriMet and a new conference in Portland, the Mobility Matters Summit, making its fifth year in 2022.

The joint research team included Swobodzinski, Parker, and graduate students in geography and special education, and Elizabeth Schaller and Denise Snow of the American Printing House for the Blind. GoodMaps, the mobile wayfinding app used in the study, was developed by American Printing House for the Blind. GoodMaps worked with developers at Intel to refine the accuracy of spatial information.

In May 2021, the GoodMaps team began scanning PSU’s Smith Memorial Student Union on-site with lidar devices. In November of that year, GoodMaps partnered with PSU’s Disability Resource Center to host interested students and staff with visual impairments to informally evaluate the technology installation within SMSU. In December 2021, the refined version of the GoodMaps installation was ready for the research participants to evaluate.

The Digital City Testbed Center (DCTC) at Portland State University is working to establish a Pacific Northwest campus network where smart city technologies can be tested before they are deployed in communities at large. DCTC’s support of this project enabled the hiring of a graduate researcher, Julie Wright, to help meet project milestones and produce project deliverables.

More information:
Seamless indoor and outdoor wayfinding by people with functional disabilities: An investigation into lived experiences, data needs, and technology requirements

Provided by Portland State University

Citation: Navigating urban spaces: Indoor and outdoor wayfinding technology for vision-impaired people (2022, November 10), retrieved November 10, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-11-urban-spaces-indoor- outdoor wayfinding. html

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